Why Does Mission Immersion Matter?

Why Does Mission Immersion Matter?

I used to do a lot of short-term mission work overseas and I caught a lot of guff for it from the “real” missionaries, the long-term ones.  I understood their argument.  The trouble was that they didn’t understand my purpose.  I do not harbor illusions about changing the world in a week.  I do not hold some simmering zeal to invade a foreign culture and set it free from its own limitations.  I use to do a lot of short-term mission overseas because somewhere along the line I came to realize that I live in the largest unreached mission field in the world.  I came to understand that it was MY culture that people were shackled to and needed to be freed from, and that if North American churches didn’t find a completely different model for doing ecclesia, then they would slip away into irrelevance.  It isn’t that I don’t use every drop of what I learned in seminary every week.  It’s just that the mental models for doing church that were presented to me there simply did not meet the need of reaching people for the Kingdom of God who lived right outside our doors.  I had no mental model.  I had no idea what a church that was entirely designed to penetrate a culture with the gospel looked like.  I needed to see one before I could do one.  So, if I ticked off a few foreign missionaries with my little short-term efforts, I am sorry.  And I also don’t care.  I needed to live in their model in order to understand their model, so that I could be a part of something here that is designed to do exactly what foreign mission churches are designed to do there.

I know a lot of great people who are really interested in taking the next step, but they (like I had) have no idea what the next step even looks like.  They, too, have to see one in order to do one.  We are not the church of our parents.  We are not that church because that church was designed to do something that is entirely unlike what the Church is being called to do here now in the U.S. – reach unreached people groups whose culture is foreign to our own.  Any teaching model that is designed to move Christ-followers into the mission, has to give those Christ-followers a model on which to build.  If they don’t have a vision for what an effective mission-driven church looks like, how can they even find a place to begin?

In my limited experience, foreign mission churches are mission-centered.  The purpose of their being is to reach outward because there is no inward to reach into when they first get going.  All of their life flows out of that mission.  Worship flows from mission. Discipleship flows out of the knowledge that disciples in the mission environment are called to make disciples who make disciples.  Mission informs the culture of the community  – it has to be host-culture-aware and host-culture-relevant.  Almost everything that mission churches do is designed to meet the needs of people who aren’t there yet.  And having said all of that, those are just words.  They aren’t substance.  What does a church like that actually look like?  What does it actually feel like? What holds it together and what keeps the roof on? What kinds of facilities do they invest in?  What do they invest first?  Where do they focus their resources and for what purpose? How do they measure effectiveness?

I did not have the benefit of having missional churches here in the U.S. that I could go and immerse myself in 16-17 years ago when I first felt God’s call to do this kind of work. The term “missional” didn’t really have legs back then.  I am sure that missional communities were out there…quite sure…but no one I knew knew who they were or how to get connected to them. People at my seminary who I know loved me deeply, said I should go into missions.  And I kept replying, “Right.” But we apparently weren’t in the same conversation.  So for me, the easiest fastest way to get something into my head was to spend a lot of money and go overseas.  And that’s what I did.  And that was how I developed a mental model around which I could cast a vision to my community, and upon which the Holy Spirit could build what we do here now.  We kicked our missional transformation off by taking about twelve people to Nicaragua.  That experience gave a nucleus of people (a cadre, of sorts) something they could use to understand what we are called to do here.  They could say, “Oh. Yeah. I get it. This is like that time in Nicaragua where we…”; or, “I get it.  This was what those missionaries were talking about when they said this is a ‘Holy Spirit Thing’”.  Understand? Immersion creates a mental model to connect current experience to.  It offers a framework…a hermeneutic…a set of lenses. The only thing we had to invent from nothing was funding methods.  Ironically, with the drop in available funds to foreign missions, we could actually help out those missionaries we visited back then with some of our funding models (Object AND Subject).

In 2012, things are different.  We have mission partners around the country where we can go spend a week and really get immersed in their mission.  Even though we kind of know what we’re doing now, we still try to do this every year.  We still have a lot to learn, and checking into other missional communities allows us to look at how others do what they do and then use that learning to enhance our own mental model and vision.  Instead of $1200 per person for a plane ticket alone, we spend $200 per person total cost.  We can do praxis in the midst of other communities’ missions that make the Gospel come to life in a way that it does not always when we are engaged in our own missions.  Likewise, we host teams from other churches and communities here for the same reasons. Sometimes you have to step away from what you do in order to gain an understanding of what God is doing in what you do.

When your community is feeling really lost about how to get started, I think that is a very valid issue.  The problem isn’t usually that they don’t want to connect to the present Kingdom of God.  And it usually isn’t that they don’t care about anyone but themselves.  It is usually that in order to do one, we first have to see one…we have to be immersed in one. We have to have a vision for what it might look like.  We need a mental model. For what it’s worth, I didn’t believe in the present Kingdom of God until I saw it with my own eyes.  Seeing it was what made me believe in it…what made me surrender to it…what made me devote my whole life to it.  Reading about it and hearing about it led me to seek it with all my heart.  However, it did not have the power to transform me. Only seeing it did.  The Kingdom of God IS the mission. If we are struggling to get our community to move missionally, consider the possibility of immersing a team in a missional community for a week or two.  Your team would certainly be welcome here and in our homes.  Blessings on the journey!

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